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OCTOBER 2, 2009 1:45PM

On Gandhi's Birthday: Democrats, Meet Ahimsa

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 Most of us know Gandhi as an extremely effective user of non-violent protest to effect change. Massive change:  life-changing for millions of people in South Africa, India, and beyond. We need a Gandhi now, but we don't have one. What we do have is the Gandhi toolbox.

Ahimsa is a word in the Hindu tradition that is most often translated as "non-violence." The word has a much deeper meaning. A better definition is True Love. Gandhi claimed to feel the same all-encompassing love for his opponents as he did for his friends.

When Gandhi was in prison, he made a pair of sandals for General Smuts, his opponent in South Africa. Gandhi wasn't doing this to be cute or make a point. And General Smuts received the gift in the spirit it was given and wore the sandals quite often before making a gift of them to Gandhi for his 70th birthday. Gandhi made the sandals with love and compassion. He attempted to treat all of his opponents in a similar way, and the success he had is shown in the dialogue he was able to have and the progress he made in many of his political endeavors.

It isn't easy practising Ahimsa. It takes time and energy in a world where we've constructed a lot of barriers between ourselves and others. I imagine it would be even harder to practice Ahimsa as a party politician. But Gandhi would say that you have to do what feels morally right to you even if others disagree. You use your own moral compass first, no matter if it contradicts party idealogy or even religious scripture. You follow your own internal compass and try to do what's right with the faith that doing right things will bear fruit, while doing wrong things will never bear fruit in the long term.

Somewhere, someone is reading this and imagining me writing this on parchment from my Mendocino county hemp hammock. The pot plants grow all around me and my cup of steaming hot organic chai. My cruelty-free breakfast. Probably some Tibetan throat singing on the solar-powered CD player.

But seriously, this heavy stuff that seems foreign and, frankly, silly, has real world applications. You wake up in the morning in America, and the idealogical battle is raging. You've got the left and the right, the red and the blue, saying and doing stuff that belongs not in a reputable newspaper but in a badly-written apocalyptic fantasy.

Would it kill us to adopt even a small piece of Gandhi's teachings to mend the fences and maybe get some work done in Congress? Instead of putting the party first (idolatry?), try using your moral compass and doing the right thing. Show some love and compassion to your opponents. Instead of beating them down, listen, and through dialogue, convince them of your truth or let them convince you of theirs.

Of course, this all starts in our own homes. That's another Gandhian principle. True change happens when you look inward and correct any defects there. For example, when I'm confronted (daily) with Republican crazy talk at, say, my kid's bus stop, instead of shutting down, being rude, considering putting the house on the market... perhaps I should listen. Give the guy the benefit of the doubt. Maybe talk to them and try to convince them that they are.... mistaken. (A lot of not so nice adjectives popped up in my head, but Mahatma's face is staring right at me from the book on my desk. Dammit.) The prospect of doing this frankly makes me sick to my stomach with stress. The effort of it all. The risk of complete alienation. Really, I believe it's worth an experiment.


So, Nancy Pelosi, Gandhiji, if he was alive today, would have a suggestion for you. Next recess, why don't you make John Boehner a present. Make sure your heart is in the right place when you do it. You just never know what might happen. 



All photos in public domain. Thanks wikiMedia!

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ahimsa, politics, gandhi

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Gandhi was a truly great man. He accomplished something tremendous and incredible. More importantly he exemplified the principle of sticking to your principles in the face of tyranny, violence and just life in general.

On the other side of that, Gandhi was victorious because he took the struggle with the British to a level that they were not willing to go to and he was able to form a movement behind his philosophy and practice. That strategy falls apart when the opposition is willing to commit to lethal force on a level that dwarfs that of the peaceful resisters, however. And that is truly regrettable.